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Not long ago, looking for a new place to live signalled possibility and a fresh start. Now, bidding wars, multimonth down payments and complicated applications are making it difficult to secure an affordable apartment, let alone one with natural light and good design bones. With a rental crisis upon us – and many Canadians saying yes to less-than-ideal spaces – we asked the experts for ways to make a blah space feel more blissful.

Embrace escapism

Soften the window with drapes, change the ceiling fixture, and hang art with an inspiring view — small changes can be transformative in a boxy or bland room.Lauren Miller

If your view consists of a parking lot or brick wall, take charge and change it up with art and accessories. “I always tell clients, ‘Wake up to the view you want to see,’” says Toronto-based designer Sabrina Albanese, of Sabrina Albanese Interiors. She suggests blowing up and framing a favourite vacation photo, or finding an affordable print of a view you’d rather be admiring – think: a whitewashed villa in Santorini or the Positano coastline. If an original piece of art isn’t in your budget, consider renting from a small local gallery or even a big institution like the Vancouver Art Gallery. Your monthly fee supports emerging or mid-career artists, and you usually have the option to purchase the piece if you love it. Rates start as low as $20 a month.

Whether it’s through big artistic statements or small details, the key, says Albanese, is to transport yourself. “If you love being at the spa, add a teak shower bench and do a small splurge on high-quality soaps and towels,” she says. “Surround yourself with things that make you happy and reflect your interests.”

Let there be (better) light

Good news: There’s no reason you have to live with the dated ceiling fixtures that came with the place. “Nothing depresses me more than bad lighting,” says Nancie Theakston of Theakston Phipps Interiors in Halifax, where the vacancy rate is less than 1 per cent according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. “Swap out atrocious builder-grade ceiling lights to elevate your environment – and your mood. Store the old ones for the next tenant and take yours with you when you move on.”

But don’t rely on ceiling fixtures alone. Layers of light will help create cozy rooms, so bring in floor lamps, table lamps, and even wall sconces – hardwiring not required. “I love a plug-in sconce and who cares if you see the cord?” Albanese says. “It’s a look. In British design you see a lot of exposed cords and it’s no big deal.” In both cases, be sure to use warm bulbs rather than cool-toned LEDs, which can make a space feel clinical. And while you’re at it, replace plastic switch plates with brass versions for an extra glow.

Inject architectural interest

While you probably can’t install crown moulding or plaster ceiling rosettes, you can add structure and patina where it didn’t exist before. Architectural salvage is a great place to start. Search flea markets and online marketplaces for vintage pieces with panache. Try mounting a pair of wood corbels inside a wide doorframe. Install a vintage mantel even if you have no fireplace; it will give your living room or bedroom a focal point.

Or, bring in a pair or freestanding bookshelves to flank a window and create the appearance of built-ins. (Bonus, the shelves give you creative freedom without marking up the walls.) If your landlord agrees to let you paint, consider doing just the window and door frames. Soft blue trim will give you a feeling of serenity, while a more dramatic off-black feels more trendy and loft-like.

Use a soft touch

Design isn’t just about looks – tactile pleasures, from a velvet cushion to a linen curtain, are all part of the appeal. Start from the ground up and find an area rug as your jumping-off point. “Bare wood, linoleum or vinyl floors become another thing entirely when you introduce something as simple as a rug,” says Theakston, adding that hand-knotted rugs are best for both quality and feel. “It gives you pattern, colour and texture all rolled up in a 9- by 12-[foot] piece you can take with you.”

Albanese points to the wide selection of ready-made curtains as a smart way to add softness to a boxy space. “If your place comes with cheap blinds you can’t remove, layer a beautiful set of drapes – or even a textured sheer – in front with a nice 10- to 12-inch hem,” she says. “They’ll make a basic window look more luxurious and your ceilings feel higher.” Even something as easy as tacking up a colourful fabric remnant or hanging a collection of baskets behind a sofa can make a space feel more soulful.

Go green, as in tropical

Large-scale plants and an abundance of visual and touchable texture help bring a living room to life.Lauren Miller

Lush and lively, houseplants are instant mood-boosters. Take a cue from top designers and avoid the small succulents in favour of high-impact tropicals and trees. Fill a tabletop with a cluster of pots, being mindful to vary the height and leaf shape for visual variety. Or, choose one singular plant for maximum impact. “Think big,” Theakston says. “No rinky-dink plants sitting 12 inches off the floor; go for at least four feet in height.” Palms, fiddleleaf figs and monsteras all bring the wow factor.

The vessel is just as important as the plant itself. Aged terracotta pots or garden urns give a plant a sense of occasion, while woven baskets add a California-casual vibe. Plant stands or plinths are a clever way to give smaller plants more presence. With any houseplant, select a pot with good drainage, and make sure to protect floors or other permanent surfaces from water damage.

With creativity, a few small changes and some take-it-with-you upgrades, a cozy home is still possible in today’s tough rental market. But do check with the landlord or property owner before making any alterations to your unit.

Instant Room Boosters

A classic gets an upgrade with glass doors and a moody hue.

Johan Olsson/Handout

  • IKEA Billy bookcase with glass doors in Dark Blue, 79-1/2″ h x 29-7/8″ w x 11″ d, $229,

Woven textures infuse your space with boho chic.


  • IKEA Torared pendant shade, 13″ h x 14″ diam., $40 (cord set $10 extra),

Two trends – stripes and ombré – come together in one well-priced find.


  • Article Poda Steel Pine rug, 8′ x 10′, $729,

Touchable velvet adds a touch of luxe.


  • Tonic Living Valentina velvet pillow cover in Balsam, 20″ sq., $70,

Casually toss over a chair to soften hard edges.


  • Tonic Living Rafael throw blanket in Cream, 50″ w x 67″ l, $175,